Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

EL SALVADOR: More than Charity-Based Strategies Needed to Uproot Violence

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Jun 9 2008 (IPS) - The strategies followed by the Salvadoran government to prevent violence and crime have serious shortcomings, say experts and youngsters considered “high risk,” who are the main beneficiaries of these initiatives.

Although the government is implementing programmes “that are headed in the right direction, and that should represent a shift in focus, from repression to prevention, the efforts are flawed because they are not public policies, and are piecemeal and precarious,” said Jaime Martínez, head of the Supreme Court’s Juvenile Justice Unit.

The government’s initiatives, he told IPS, are based on “volunteer work, philanthropy, charity and foreign aid,” and are not granted the funds required by the magnitude and complexity of the problem. “That is not going to get us anywhere,” he added.

For years, the governments of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which has been in power since 1989, have followed strategies aimed at curbing the high levels of violent crime that are a major obstacle to human development in El Salvador. However, crime rates have continued to climb.

The main focus is on young people in poor neighbourhoods, with efforts being made to create opportunities for them, as an alternative to falling into youth gangs (known in Central America as “maras”), which are largely to blame for the country’s high levels of crime.

The programmes are promoted by the National Council on Public Security (CNSP), a government agency, mainly in the slums surrounding San Salvador and in other parts of west-central El Salvador, where most of the population is concentrated, and where crime rates are highest.

Official figures indicate that in 2007, Greater San Salvador accounted for 40 percent of all crimes in the country, including homicides. After the capital, the most violent provinces are La Libertad, Sonsonate and Santa Ana.

More than 16,000 murders were committed in El Salvador between 2003 and 2007, 80 percent of them with firearms, according to official statistics.

The authorities estimate that there are 450,000 firearms in private hands in this country, although only 170,000 are legally registered.

According to the latest census, whose results were released in May, El Salvador has a murder rate of 64 per 100,000 population, one of the highest in Latin America – and the world. But among young people, the rate could be as high as 149 per 100,000, say experts.

Medical care for victims, protection of property and restoring material damages caused by the rising tide of violence and crime absorb a large proportion of state resources, and the authorities have failed to come up with a solution.

Since 2003, the governments of Francisco Flores (1999-2004) and current President Antonio Saca have put an emphasis on hard-line “mano dura” or “firm hand” policies to clamp down on youth gangs and violent crime in general.

But analysts say these zero tolerance approaches to crime have been counterproductive, and have actually led to even higher crime rates.

The main gangs active in this impoverished, densely populated Central American country are the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, which originated in California in the 1980s after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during El Salvador’s civil war. Many of them settled in poor neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife.

Although exclusively “youth” gangs in their earlier years, some are now led by members as old as 35 or 40. However, they also recruit children as young as 10.

El Salvador’s 1980-1992 armed conflict between government forces and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) insurgent group (now the country’s main opposition party) left 75,000 people dead, 8,000 “disappeared” and around 50,000 disabled.

After a 1992 peace agreement between the FMLN and the government of Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) put an end to the war, many gang members of Salvadoran origin were deported from the United States to El Salvador, where they set up local chapters.

Over the last decade, the “maras” spread to Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and more recently to southern Mexico. Panama also has youth gangs, but they are mainly thought to be homegrown.

The CNSP, with an annual budget of less then two million dollars, has implemented several “social prevention of violence” programmes aimed at “recuperating” specific urban areas where the gangs are strong, by getting local residents involved who are interested in transforming their neighbourhoods.

The head of the CNSP, Óscar Bonilla, told IPS that his agency has promoted “a focalised, comprehensive and complementary model that has been used to ‘rescue’ areas where the police did not formerly dare to go,” by developing community leaders who forge a dynamic relationship between the local communities and the schools.

“By reducing violence in the classrooms, we have reduced it in the surrounding communities, and vice versa,” he said.

Bonilla said other strategies include plans to combat child abuse and promote sports and cultural programmes, skills and vocational training, academic instruction and agricultural projects that target former gang members, with a view to “rehabilitation.”

These strategies, he added, have directly or indirectly benefited some 232,000 young people in Greater San Salvador and western El Salvador, mainly with funds from the European Union, which in the last five years has granted around 15 million dollars to finance the Pro-Jóvenes (Pro-Youth) fund.

Bonilla complained, however, that business owners “do not apply the principle of social responsibility in more creative ways,” and “are not open to young people.”

He called for “a strengthening of prevention strategies, an increase in public spending, and efforts to improve income distribution” in order to create better opportunities, especially for the young.

A 2007 report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) showed that in 2004 and 2005, El Salvador dedicated the lowest proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) to social spending (just 5.6 percent) of the 21 countries studied.

Although that proportion rose slightly, to 6.5 percent in 2007, social spending in El Salvador remained significantly below the Central American average of 13 percent.

Antonio Rodríguez, a priest at the San Francisco de Asís de Mejicanos church, said the government’s prevention strategies are based on “a sin of omission” because they ignore and conceal the real causes of the high rates of violence.

“This is a human rights problem for young people, because before they become victimisers, these youngsters are victims of abuse and violence,” he said.

Rodríguez said that underlying the violence is “a highly corrosive and violent economic and political structure, based on inequality, which is the biggest cause of poverty and violence.”

He called on the Salvadoran government to urgently sign and ratify the Ibero-American Convention on Young People’s Rights.

Marvin Cuellar, a 22-year-old young man who lives in Montreal, a poor outlying neighbourhood of Mejicanos dominated by the maras, was forced to drop out of school after ninth grade because of economic problems and got a job as a cook in a restaurant in the capital.

“Despite the government programmes and plans, the violence has not let up. Young people are joining gangs because of the breakdown of families, social exclusion, poverty,” and sometimes parental neglect and negligence, Cuellar told IPS.

There are four or five murders a month in his neighbourhood, he said, adding that “there are no options in this country” – a statement that seems to be widely shared, as there are as many as two million Salvadorans currently living in the United States.

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